Mexico Or Bust: Autism Aims To Take On La Carrera Panamericana
Photography by Jason Koxvold
La Carrera Panamericana is not a rally for the weak-willed, and when you plan to run it behind the wheel of a relatively modern Bentley, well, you better know what you’re doing to say the least. For one group in New England though, the somewhat odd choice of vehicle won’t be holding back their effort to become not just the first Bentley in the event, but the first one to have been built and prepped for racing by autistic mechanics and students. This is a story about opportunities, racing, and what it means to find out what life has to offer to all of us. Intrigued, we met with the car’s owner, Tom Webster, to get the full story on how this remarkable effort came to be.
Andrew Golseth: Tom, tell me how this project got underway.
Tom Webster: I grew up in a house talking about Bentleys but not having any in the garage. My grandfather was always going on about the Bentley Boys, their exploits, all that stuff.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Continental R, it’s a big two-door coupé, and I saw one of these cars back in London 25 years ago. You know when you see a certain car and it just stops you dead, and you say, “Ah, that’s just the most beautiful looking thing.” They were the equivalent of about $300,000 when new. I had a little bit of cash in my pocket and I saw them going down in value and got interested in buying one. I went over to a place called Gullwing Motors, which is in Queens, run by a guy named Peter Kumar. It’s an amazing place. They had this car for sale for $29,500, and it looked pretty good… from 50 yards away. But there’s the adage that “the cheapest Bentley you buy is the most expensive Bentley you buy,” which rang massively true in this case.
AG: I think that saying holds true for quite a few cars, what was the story with yours in this instance?
TW: I’m half decent with a wrench, but I got into this and everything about the car was intimidating. Every component feels like its made out of rock from the Middle Ages—everything had sort of perished. I’d fix one thing and break another as I was doing it, just pulling my hair out. I went on to all of the usual forums, the RROC and stuff like that, and eventually discovered this guy, John Robison.
TW: John Robison is an autistic adult and he runs J.E. Robison Service in Massachusetts. Turns out he’s just an absolute genius with mechanics, especially when it comes to Bentleys. As I was digging deeper, I realized that he has this whole other life. He’s more than just an advocate for autistic kids, he’s written four books now on the subject and sold over a million copies. I thought he sounded really interesting of course, so I went up to see John with my son and spent the day in Massachusetts. John asked, unusually for a mechanic, if we wanted to go out to lunch with him after he looked over the car.
So there we were having lunch and John was looking at my son Milo, and he asked, “Have you ever had Milo checked out for anything?” I was like, “No, why would I do that?” Subsequently though, we did have Milo checked out and he’s now in a Special Education program and absolutely thriving as a result of it.
AG: You are right, that is quite the unusual visit to a mechanic. What came next?
TW: Naturally, John and I became incredibly good friends through this. At the end of that first day, he said, “I want to show you this thing that I’ve got,” and we walked down to the end of his compound. There, sure enough, was a school where he has autistic kids from the tri-county school district come over to spend half the day there, five days a week. They learn the rudimentary aspects of mechanics.
He helps them get a driver’s license, health and safety certificates, and so on. Ever since then, I’ve been working with John. What I didn’t realize at the time was almost everybody who works at Robison is on the spectrum, all the mechanics. They all wear it as a badge of honor, which I love. Not all of them are gifted with a specific skill, but a lot of them have the ability to deeply focus. Since this all started, I’ve spent two and a half years and well over $100,000 rebuilding this car and in that time, I’ve thought, “We really need to tell the world about this somehow.”
TW: I used to be a Creative Director and Partner at an ad agency here in New York called Mother. I wanted to make something more meaningful than advertising for brands, and I believe this is something we should tell everybody about this because it’s a really interesting story. I thought, “Why don’t we take this car that’s been a big headache, turn it into a race car, and enter it in some wild event?”
AG: And you’ve chosen La Carrera Panamericana?
TW: Yeah, I’ve always sort of been intrigued by that race. I started looking into it and realized that we could run the Continental R in an exhibition class. So, that’s what we’re doing now. Having just finished rebuilding it, we’re kind of going to dismantle it all over again to prepare it for racing. This will be the first Bentley to compete.
The rally is seven days across 3,000 kilometers in the middle of October. For the Carrera, I think the Bentley Continental R is a pretty good choice, definitely the most comfortable car in the race if not the fastest!
AG: So, it’s just John, the kids, you, and the Continental R making this happen?
TW: It started off as just us, but Crewe Genuine Parts and Bentley have been incredibly supportive. Bentley delivered a brand new engine to us the other day and they brought us these amazing Alcon racing brakes as well. Apparently they made these brakes for the Sultan of Brunei, who back in the late ‘80s rescued Bentley by ordering something like 200 extraordinary custom built vehicles. He bought the first Continental off the stand at the Geneva Auto Show. He made these things called “Supercons,” which stands for Super Fast Continentals. He wanted racing brakes so they went to Alcon and they made a limited number of these kits.
AG: So, Bentley is an official sponsor in this?
TW: So I reached out to Bentley and had a couple of meetings with them and they sort of said, “It’s great, fantastic, but we’re not quite sure how we can help.” I wasn’t looking for money from Bentley, but the support they’re giving us is amazing. Bentley funded our launch event at the Classic Car Club in New York for instance, and they have made a lot of introductions to endemic partners such as Mobil 1 and Pirelli. We also promote the initiative to the global community of Bentley owners through the Bentley Network App. Having the support of such an incredible team at Bentley has given us a great foundation for the project. They really got behind it.
AG: The launch event at the CCC—I heard there was a special guest?
TW: That’s right. Our MC was none other than Derek Bell. I’d actually asked if we could contact Derek directly as he’s an ambassador for Bentley, and he very kindly said, “I love this and I’m going to help you make it happen. If you need me to test the car, if you need me around, whatever I can do, I’m going to help.”
AG: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say a bad thing about the man.
TW: He’s a legend, and so nice and so charming. He actually worked on the development of the Arnage T and Bentleys back in the day, so he knows the engine and gearbox really well. To have him volunteer to help us develop our car is amazing.
AG: So, Derek is going to be testing the car, who’s going to be preparing it?
TW: It’s the kids, John and the people in his garage, and myself. As soon as I get back from LA, the car is going up to John’s garage in Massachusetts with all these new parts and we’re going to start gutting it. The first thing is really to get the cage in, which is quite difficult without messing everything up.
We also have the support of Kent Bain at Automotive Restorations in Connecticut. His team has raced in La Carrera for the last 18 years and will be helping us with some of the race prep for the car and also the logistics of running the 3000-kilometer race
AG: Are you going to be documenting the progress of this big endeavor?
TW: Yes, we will be updating mexicoorbust.com and our Instagram account, @mexorbust. We want to tell the story from the kids’ and John’s point of view too, so we’re going to tell the story in a documentary—the whole process from beginning to end. We’re just getting into the first phase of preparing the car—the second phase is testing this summer.
We’ve got a director, Richie Smyth, who just made The Siege of Jadotville on Netflix. He is also a total petrolhead and is currently five years into rebuilding a 1978 Aston Martin Vantage in Dublin.
AG: That’s great that this story will be able to reach even more people. What would say is the project’s end goal?
TW: Awareness. Specifically, autism costs something like $340 billion per year in the United States simply because we don’t educate correctly and we don’t employ these people properly. We’re on a mission to help the world understand that if we reengineer the way we educate these kids, we can change the dynamics of the financials around them. These kids have great skills and could be doing amazing things with the right opportunities.
I’m not a wealthy guy. I’m not your average Bentley owner, so we need to raise funds. There’s a link for fundraising donations on our site. We raised about $40,000 at the launch, which is amazing, but we’re committed to raising $250,000 for the school. Hopefully, through the distribution sale of the documentary, we’ll reach our target. I’m absolutely determined that we’re going to make that happen. Anyone who wants to volunteer, help, give advice, donate, anything, we’ll take it!